The age of niche
Why the most exciting and innovative music and art can be found in the magins – and why the mainstream is content to ignore it
The most interesting art always takes shape far away from the limelight. Out there in the margins, you’ll find the sounds and visions which will, in time, influence what happens in the mainstream. Any great musical leap forward – or micro-genre hop, skip and jump – first stepped out in the underground. The mainstream may get its tuxedos on for the Oscars or Brits and command all the attention and publicity that night and the morning after, but the real machinations and momentum which informed all those moves originally took place many miles away. The drawback for those who work in the niche, of course, is that it’s usually primarily about art and not commerce from where they stand. The money and publicity which drives projects onwards and upwards doesn’t gravitate towards the margins. Most times out there, you’re doing it for love, not profit.
These musings are brought to you by two recent observations from the reporter’s notebook: an interview with Cathal Cully from Girls Names and an interesting conversation at the recent 12 Points jazz festival in Dublin.
Cully was talking about his band’s mindset, their fantastic new album “The Second Life” and the financial struggle and demands to make it. “I know people get into music for various reasons, like to become famous or whatever, but we were the opposite. We get a bit of stick here because we come from an art crowd in Belfast. I’ve no qualms in saying it’s as much an art project as anything else. I personally treat it as making art. Even saying the words ‘music industry’ seem wrong. The dirtiest thing about it is that people are making money in the music industry but the artists aren’t.”
The economics of keeping a band together is something Cully is acutely aware of. “We paid for the recording ourselves and I still have a bit of money to pay off it. The whole economic thing is so frustrating and jobs are so hard to come by. I’m out of work at the minute, but I’ve been through so many jobs in the last year. I was labouring all last summer and autumn, then driving for a TV shoot and then working in a shop over Christmas. I just took whatever came along to pay for what has to be done.”
When people hear someone is in a band, especially a band who’ve released two albums and tour abroad a lot, there are a lot of perceptions in the air, as Cully noted in this quote which didn’t make the published piece. “I think people assume things are different. We were at And So I Watch You From Afar a while back and someone asked Claire (Miskimmin, bass player) ‘do you make a living from music?’. It’s far from it. People think when they see us going off on tours and releasing records that we’re doing well, but we don’t even have management. We’re lucky in that we’re breaking even but it’s tough. We need to buy so much gear in the next few months but it’s not going to happen.”
A two day pow-wow called Jazz Futures, featuring various panel debates, presentations and talks, took place during the recent 12 Points festival in Dublin’s Temple Bar. I was there to talk about how the web had constructively disrupted the music business and it was interesting to tease out how this macro event, something which had changed every single aspect of the business, had trickled down to the jazz community.
Now, here’s a real niche. Ask most people about their feelings for jazz and they’ll tell you that they love the stuff, but they’re probably talking about the heritage acts and vintage breeds who make up the sound’s back catalogue. Modern, new jazzers? What, they’re still making jazz? Who knew?
They sure are and the quality is very high, as the 12 Points festival showed with its bookings from the European talent pool. But it’s not the mainstream and it’s unlikely to feature on many radars unless it comes with Norah Jones or Jamie Cullum or Michael Buble or someone else upfront honing their sound with the bigger audience in mind. The issues which the jazz folks face – funding, media coverage, dwindling audience attention, talent development etc – are problems which many niche artists can talk about until the cows come home so it’s worth noting that the jazzers have common cause with a lot of other people in the same predicament.
But it’s also worth noting that the niche is probably bigger than it seems. After all, when you combine all these different scenes, it rivals the mainstream in size and span, depending on how you choose to define and measure these things. In this post-long tail world, there’s room for all – and many have taken advantage of this.
However, the problem for those who operate in niche areas is that the coverage and attention which the mainstream attracts will never come their way. It’s something which came up a few times at Jazz Futures, a feeling that jazz merited and deserved a level playing field when it came to media coverage, for instance. Of course, jazz merits and deserves this and should get the same coverage as rock/pop does, but it’s never going to happen. Girls Names also merit and deserve the same coverage that Bon Jovi and Coldplay get, but that too is never going to happen. The mainstream isn’t interested. The mainstream has made its decision and goes with the bold-type names which have been pushed their way by the major entertainment companies and corporations. The mainstream will never cover a jazz event like 12 Points in the same way as it covers a festival like the Electric Picnic because it’s made a decision that its target audience favours the latter over the former. And the numbers they’re looking at show that they’re right. Of course, the jazzers can produce another set of numbers, but the mainstream will just shrug and move on.
Perhaps, then, it’s time for the niche to turn its back on the mainstream. Maybe it’s time to stop cribbing about the unfairness of their lot, about how the mainstream media prefers to cover shite rock and pop acts than their music, their sounds, their stars. Perhaps it’s time to stop fighting battles which can never be won because of how the battlefield has been drawn up. Indeed, maybe it’s time to stop fighting full stop and start creating even more great music, art and culture and wait, as has always happened, for the mainstream to realise what is happening. I don’t know about you, but I’m far more interested in and excited by what’s happening out in the niches and margins than anything going on in the mainstream.